The plot is by Shakespeare cleverly transposed to Swinging London of 1964; the original, terrifically tuneful songs in the style of the early Beatles are by Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong; the mod scene is brought to life by a formidable design team, especially costume designer Jessica Ford; the 15-member cast includes such proven pros as Justin Kirk (“Love! Valour! Compassion!”, “Other Desert Cities,” “Weeds”) and Nicole Parker (“Wicked.”) “These Paper Bullets,” a mash up of the Bard’s “Much Ado About Nothing” with a spoof of the Fab Four, is great to look at, with songs that are fabulous to listen to. So why did I find so much of it excruciating to sit through?
The answer is the tone. In what felt like an almost desperate effort to entertain us, playwright Rolin Jones and director Jackson Gay too often effect a Monty Python-like silliness – thick daffy accents, dopey wigs, lampshades on heads (men wearing lampshades on their heads!), a drag Queen of England, lots of fumbling and stumbling and staggering, as well as frequent stabbings with what looks like a poison pen. The worst of this is in a subplot involving bumbling inspectors from Scotland Yard, which unfortunately is launched in the very first scene. You either find all this goofiness funny or you don’t. I didn’t. The lady sitting next to me was howling and hooting with laughter, and shot up for a standing ovation at the end. On the other hand, she arrived late, spared the full two and a half hours.
The creative team does take much care with the central plot — Shakespeare’s convoluted tale of two couples whose love is thwarted and undermined, until it’s not. They are crafty in their transposing of the story: Benedick and Beatrice, who engage in a “merry war” of banter in Shakespeare’s original, are now Ben (Kirk), a member of the Beatles-like group, The Quartos (a fine pun), and Bea (Parker), a hip fashion designer. The young lovers Claudio and Hero are now Claude (Bryan Fenkart), Ben’s band mate, and Higgy (Ariana Venturi), a Twiggy-like fashion model. Most cleverly, the villainous thwarter Don John becomes Don Best (Adam O’Byrne), who is motivated to keep the couples apart as an act of revenge for being kicked out of the band. The new surname is therefore an allusion to Pete Best, who was replaced by Ringo Starr as the Beatle’s drummer.
The playwright is especially adroit in the seeding of the play with such Boomer bait, although sometimes with less pleasing results. We see an album cover with the exact design and font of the Beatle’s Rubber Soul album, but it’s entitled “Rub My Bowl.”
Armstrong’s half dozen or so songs really are delightful, but, otherwise, in this updated Much Ado about Nothing, to paraphrase the lads, nothing is gonna change your world.
These Paper Bullets!
By Rolin Jones based on William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing; songs by Billie Joe Armstrong; directed by Jackson Gay; sets by Michael Yeargan; costumes by Jessica Ford; lighting by Paul Whitaker; incidental music and sound by Broken Chord; projections by Nicholas Hussong; orchestrations by Tom Kitt; music direction by Julie McBride; choreography by Kevin Williamson; dialect coach, Stephen Gabis; fight director, Mike Rossmy.
Cast: James Barry (Pedro), Stephen DeRosa (Leo Messina), Bryan Fenkart (Claude), Christopher Geary (Mr. Crumpet/Anton/Queen), Brad Heberlee (Mr. Urges/Reverend), Justin Kirk (Ben), Tony Manna (Mr. Cake), Andrew Musselman (Boris), Keira Naughton (Ulcie), Adam O’Byrne (Don Best), Lucas Papaelias (Balth), Nicole Parker (Bea), Greg Stuhr (Mr. Berry), Ariana Venturi (Higgy) and Liz Wisan (Paulina Noble/Frida).
Running time: two and a half hours including one intermission.
These Paper Bullets is scheduled to run through January 10, 2016.